Jon Cooper - Passing Grade - March 8, 2010

Passing Grade
Josh Smith is at the head of the class as a passer.
By Jon Cooper

As Josh Smith stood on the right wing beyond the three-point line, there was obviously something going on in his head.

Smith held the ball in his right hand, high above his head, staring down his Philadelphia counterpart, daring him to make a move. After a two- or three- second game of chicken, Smith moved first, firing a laser underneath the basket where Marvin Williams was waiting. Williams converted the lay-up.

After a Sixers’ miss, Smith took an outlet pass from Al Horford and was out in the open floor pushing the break. He pulled up at the foul line on the left side. He stopped, paused, almost as if calculating in his head like Terminator. After a second, he again rifled a pass underneath, again to Williams. This time it led to a dunk.

In a one-minute span, Smith had two of his team-high-tying five assists. Wednesday night against Philadelphia made it 19 times that Smith has led the Hawks in assists.

That's not for his career. That's just this season.

Sound like a lot? It should. Only Joe Johnson (21) has led the team in helpers more (Bibby’s also done it 19 times). For a little context, Smith led the team in assists eight times last season.

So what's with this sudden generosity?

Actually it's not really sudden.

"I was always an extremely good passer. Now it's starting to get recognized with the rest of my game," said Smith, who is third on the team averaging 4.1 assists per game and whose 247 assists rank third, only six behind Bibby (he's 31 behind Johnson, the team-leader). "I've always been about team, since I've played the game I've always been a pass-first guy."

Always? Really?

Really.

"He's always been a good passer, always been a pass-first guy," said Hawks back-up center Randolph Morris, who played AAU ball with Smith on the legendary Atlanta Celtics team that also featured Dwight Howard. "It's a natural part of his game."

The assists came a lot more naturally with Howard, who then, as now, was a man amongst boys and Randolph. The assists are coming naturally now for a similar reason.

"He's always been able to pass," said Williams, who came into the league in 2005-06, the year after Smith. "Our team is a lot better than it has been in the past with guys that can make plays, knock down shots, finish plays when he puts them in position. That's why his assist numbers are up. But he's always been a pretty good passer."

Think of the current Hawks team. Now think of the 2004-05 Hawks, when Smith broke in — a group that featured Antoine Walker, Al Harrington, Tony Delk, Josh Childress and Tyronn Lue.

"I've got a lot of players on my team that can put the ball in the hole," Smith said. "I'm very unselfish and am a willing passer."

The spirit being willing and the flesh being able isn't all that makes Smith one of the most efficient passers on the team and in the league (his 1.84 assists-to-turnover ratio is 17th in the NBA, and third on the Hawks behind Johnson and Bibby).

So how does he do it?

"Just pass it," said Smith, with an easy laugh. "If a guy's open pass the ball. It's not that hard. You have to be willing to do it. You kind of anticipate what's about to happen and you try to make the right play out of it. It's a feel. It's a feel."

The Hawks are feeling mighty good about his quarterbacking.

"There are not a lot of forwards in the league that get an opportunity to handle the ball like we let ‘Smoove’ do," said Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson. "I've always said, even going back to ‘Smoove’ when he was a rookie, our fours and fives have to feel comfortable handling the basketball out on the floor because during the course of the game you're going to get caught in that position and it can't be a surprise to you. He'll rebound and he'll bust the ball out, push it up and make guard plays that you just don't see on a lot of teams."

Smith is as good in the half-court.

"He has such good vision. He has a good feel for the game, so when the double-team comes he does a great job of putting guys in a position to score. He sees so much of the floor," said Williams. "Some guys just have it. Some guys just have a natural ability to pass the basketball. Josh is one of those guys."

Smith’s vision is complemented by knowing how to implement his gift.

"I think that's the most surprising thing, his knowledge of the game," said Jamal Crawford. "I don't think there are any good passers who don't understand the game. He definitely understands the game."

That understanding is leading to continued development in his game and a seemingly endless ceiling.

"He's full of surprises," said Williams, with a laugh. "He's grown so much as a player. Coming into this league and to do what he did at 18 years old, it's impressive, because it's tough. It was tough for me at 19. So for him to still be in this league and be as effective as he is is impressive. It's definitely a testament to his work ethic."

"What has separated ‘Smoove’ from past years is that he's learned to understand time-score situations," added Woodson. "He's managing the game so much better than he's ever managed it in his life. When we see him make plays in the open court, where he might hit Joe for a wide-open three or Bibby, or Al for a dunk or Marvin for running lay-up dunk, or he'll finish it himself, it's nice to see because it just lets me know that he's really starting to grow. And he still has room for improvement. He's still an untapped player."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.